Vienna, June 3 – Many people dismissed Yuri Luzhkov’s statement about Sevastopol as part of Russia as the product of his tendency to play to the crowd or to speak without reflection, but in fact a senior Moscow analyst says, the Moscow mayor’s words on this occasion reflect the thinking of the increasingly important “party of empire” within the Russian government.
In an analysis posted online today, Aleksandr Karavayev of Moscow State University suggests that a careful reading of what happened after Luzhkov made his remarks shows that most influential people in the upper reaches of Moscow share his views or at least are not prepared to disown them (www.ia-centr.ru/expert/1327/).
Initially, many in the Ukrainian government “hoped that Moscow if it did not condemn would somehow want to distance itself from the ‘separatist-mayor.’” But that did not happen. The Russian foreign ministry, reflecting the views “of the entire political community of the upper echelons of power in Moscow,” refused to do either.
The reasons for that, Karavayev continues, are to be found both in the events immediately preceding Luzhkov’s remarks and in more general Russian calculations about how Moscow should behave with respect to Ukraine as the latter seeks to integrate itself more tightly into Western institutions like NATO.
On the one hand, he writes, many in the Russian capital were infuriated by the Ukrainian suggestion that Russian forces confine the celebration of the 225th anniversary of the Russian fleet to a location beyond the city limits of Sevastopol, something that naval officers and others found insulting in the extreme.
And on the other, Karavayev argues, even more in Moscow believe that Sevastopol is a useful tool to limit Ukraine’s march toward NATO membership, a reminder both to Kyiv and even more the Western powers like Germany and Italy if not as much to the United States of how Moscow might respond if the Western alliance admits Ukraine without Russia’s agreement.
But there is a third calculation, the Moscow analyst suggests, that lies behind both of these and provides an insight into the thinking of many in the Russian capital at the present time. This is “the position of other and more sober supporters” of what Luzhkov is doing about the possibility of re-establishing Russian control over the post-Soviet space.
While such people “precisely understand that the Kremlin is not yet in a position to swallow” the entire region, many of what Karavayev calls “the hidden supporters of the policy of force” were asking themselves “why not support Luzhkov at least at the level of words” as a way of sending a signal to Kyiv and to other Russians as well?
“In a word,” the frequent commentator on Russian policy in Eurasia writes, “there are various extremely influential people in Russia who for one reason or another support Luzhkov’s position. And they are convinced in the necessity of more active measure to resolve this problem in Russian-Ukrainian relations than the Kremlin has yet adopted.”
“What is the ‘party of empire’ struggling for” in the case of Sevastopol? Obviously, Karavayev says, it is not for the military base itself. That is far less significant than it used to be. “But on the other hand, Sevastopol is infrastructure plus business on space of expensive Crimean land.” And many in Moscow have interests there.
Consequently, what this “party of empire” wants most is that Kyiv will have to look over its shoulder as it moves toward NATO, but what it wants as well – and perhaps even more – is for Sevastopol to become a kind of Russian-dominated “Hong Kong” in Europe, a place where Russian business can develop well into the future.
To some, such ambitions, which would include extending Russian rental of the base well into the future in exchange for a Ukrainian promise not to join NATO and for Russian economic development there, may seem far-fetched, but ever more people “at the second and part of the first echelons of power” in Moscow believe in it just as Luzhkov does.
And if the Kremlin backs away from it in the name of reaching a broader accord with Washington or NATO, these people are prepared to exploit the “new patriotism” and the “new national character” of Russians via the media in order to limit the Russian leadership’s ability to make concessions.
After all, Karavayev points out, support for a Russian Sevastopol is very broad: it is backed by “two such diametrically opposed intellectuals of Russia as the writer [Aleksandr] Solzhenitsyn and the chess player [Gary] Kasparov.” Any Russian leader who believes he can ignore this could find himself and his government in “a crisis” as a result.
Of course, this tougher Russian position will “harm” Russian-Ukrainian relations, Karavayev concedes. But it is time for Russians and everyone else to recognize the reality that “we will never (in the foreseeable historical cycle) be together. Ukraine is not Russia, as President [Leonid] Kuchma said. And he was right.”
But it is equally the case, the Moscow State University scholar insists, that “Russia is not Ukraine and must defend its interests as any strong country would, and this is not a question of imperial ambitions” but rather of “the historical obligations of Russia which cannot be simply ‘written off.’”
However accurate Karavayev’s argument about the existence of “a party of empire” may be, his suggestion that Luzhkov is speaking for more than himself calls attention to the Moscow mayor’s latest proposal: selling Siberian river water to the parched countries of Central Asia in order to cement Russian influence there (www.centrasia.ru/news.php?st=1212475980).